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High Adventure or Political Roman a` Clef?
on 18 November 2002
One of the best Biggles stories published, I re-read this thirty years after my first acquaintance with the series. Remarkably, the adventure remains untarnished by time, and the dialogue, though now having acquired a period charm, is still fresh and witty.
Johns clearly relishes the idea of the "underdogs" taking on the big boys and winning, through a combination of guile, wit and guts.
What I missed the first time was the reference to the then-contemporary political scene. At this time both Hitler and Mussolini were annexing smaller, relatively defenceless countries against a background of political appeasement and, in some cases, upper-class British admiration. It must have taken some guts to write (and get published) a childrens' book which so clearly takes a stand against totalitarian expansionism.
For Maltovia, read Austria, Czechoslovakia or Finland - for the Lovitznian aggressors, read Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
In contrast to the real situation in the thirties, where the countries mentioned above were modern republics undermined by multi-party factionalism, the Maltovians are fiercely monarchical and deeply traditionalist.
Thus, Johns looks back with some yearning to the European "Ancien regime " that disappeared with the First World War - numbering among his characters a beautiful Crown Princess, a stuffy but good-hearted Courtier and a spruce young gadfly officer in the "Prisoner of Zenda" mould.
Throw in the usual wolf-ish and unprincipled villains, a race against time, a hilarious escape and much tapping of cigarettes on the back of hands, and you have a short (by modern standards) but thoroughly enjoyable read.